The Southern Baptist Convention is, by its very nature, an eclectic group. There have been, from the beginning, various beliefs of church polity and ecclesiology. Even in recent years different factions have battled for control of the Convention’s direction—namely that of Conservatism versus Modernism, and Calvinism versus Traditionalism. There has been, however, a battle raging that started prior to the first meeting of the Southern Baptists in Augusta, Georgia in 1845. This struggle is one that centers on the autonomy of the church and the centralization of denominational control. It is the movement known as Old Landmarkism.
Today, this battle over Old Landmarkism still trudges on with its defenders and detractors waging a war of words, pamphlets, and repetitious articles. The Landmarkists write on subjects from close communion to pulpit affiliation and fire most of the salvos. The rallying point, however, is the subject of alien immersion. For this, cry the Landmarkists, is the line of demarcation between Baptist and “the rest.”
In the history of the people called Baptists, there has always been a separation from the main-line protestant denominations. Baptists have kept a separate existence from the Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant churches, and at various times, this has caused persecution for Baptists. This said, Baptist have attempted to live peaceably with their fellow Christians. While doctrinal differences were most certainly a factor, most Baptists recognized the Reformed Churches as just that—churches.
However, in the middle nineteenth century, a movement known as Old Landmarkism began. This movement had its beginning at Cotton Groves, Tennessee on June 24, 1851. In the Cotton Groves Resolutions, the Landmarkists wrote out five statements defining their beliefs. These resolutions were actually questions; nevertheless, they were decisive about the Old Landmark movement’s values. The answers set the basis for Landmarkist doctrine, namely that Baptist ought not to share their pulpits with Pedobaptists, ought not to except into membership those individuals immersed by Pedobaptists, and should practice close communion.
The movement has had an astounding effect on the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, especially those in the southwestern portion of the then young nation. The doctrinal distinctives of Old Landmarkism has had an impact for the good of the convention, as well as for the detriment. It served as a rallying point against the major gains of the Campbellites. Even today, Old Landmarkism has it greatest prominence in the geographic region of the country where the Church of Christ is also strongest. This push of Old Landmarkism for doctrinal integrity helped to steady a denomination racked by Alexander Campbell’s intentional assault on Baptist membership.
To be certain, this caused denominational infighting, underhanded scheming, and, perhaps worst of all, a sense of radical localism. Do to this radical localism, the Landmarkists denied the right of the Southern Baptist Convention to appoint missionaries; they viewed any agency beyond the local church as unbiblical. Because of this stance, many Southern Baptist churches refused to support the fledgling work of the new agencies. Most of these churches were from the old southwest, particularly in the Mississippi Valley, Missouri ‘boot heel” and the western parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. In fact, Ammerman suggested that, a century after the Cotton Groves Resolutions, half of the Southern Baptist churches in Tennessee and Arkansas still gave no financial support to denominational missions.
The effect, certain and far reaching, was primarily the work of three men, all of great reputation and skill. James R. Graves, James M. Pendleton, and Amos C. Dayton formed the movement. The three, known as the “Great Triumvirate,” based their new movement on the scriptural text of Proverbs 22:28. The text speaks of not removing the ancient landmarks which were set by the fathers of the faith. Pendleton coined the termed “Old Landmarkism” in an article written in the Tennessee Baptist in 1854. Graves would later publish this article as book titled An Old Landmark Reset. The ancient landmarks being interpreted as the fact that Baptist churches were the only true Christian churches, and the Baptist tradition alone had succession from the Apostolic church.
In Pendleton’s article, he set forth the premise that Pedobaptist ministers were not true ministers of the gospel, because Pedobaptist churches were not true churches. Therefore, there could be no pulpit affiliation, or sharing of pulpits with non-Baptist preachers. Secondly, that Pedobaptist baptism in any form, infant sprinkling, affusion of adults, or even immersion of professing believers was invalid, or as Pendleton put it, “alien.” The only true baptism was by immersion, post salvific, and at the hands of a properly baptized minister, i.e. a Baptist minister. Obviously, in the minds of Graves, Dayton, and Pendleton, because Pedobaptists were not ministers, they could not perform baptisms. Lastly, Pendleton put forth that there could be no open table of communion. Most Baptists of the day would only open the Lord’s Table to fellow Baptists. Graves and Pendleton disagreed on this point. Graves saw the Communion as a closed fellowship for the local membership only, while Pendleton believed it acceptable for Baptists to take communion at a church outside of their membership. Pendleton’s only prerequisite, however, was that the individual must be invited to the table, and could not demand inclusion.
The original 1854 essay that Pendleton wrote, dealt with the idea of pulpit affiliation. The original title, Ought Baptists to Invite Pedobaptists to Preach in Their Pulpits?, gives some indication of the feelings of the day. It had been common practice to share pulpits with other denominations. The appendix to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, advocates the acceptance of other ministers, calling them “our brethren who are Pedobaptists” and that they were “called to the ministry of the word.” The Landmarkists though denied the existence of any church outside of the Baptist Church. In contradiction to the Philadelphia confessions, Pendleton explained:
The doctrine of landmarkism is that baptism and church membership precede the preaching of the gospel, even as they precede communion at the Lord's table. The argument is that Scriptural authority to preach emanates, under God, from a gospel church; that as "a visible church is a congregation of baptized believers," etc., it follows that no Pedobaptist organization is a church in the Scriptural sense of the term, and that therefore Scriptural authority to preach cannot proceed from such an organization. Hence the non-recognition of Pedobaptist ministers, who are not interfered with, but simply let alone.
Therefore, Graves and Pendleton refused to call other denominations churches at all. They preferred to call them “religious societies.” So a Methodist minister was not a minister of a local Methodist church, but a rabbi of the local Methodist society. They argued that if indeed they were not ministers, they could not share the pulpit. To a more practical degree, Pendleton contended that to give recognition to them in the pulpit disavowed any claim that their baptism was invalid. In rebuttal to this thought, A.H. Strong contended that baptism was an act of obedience for the believer, not an act of administration for a minister.
Nevertheless, most of the Landmark ideas on this came from their belief of apostolic succession. This is certainly nothing new among Baptist, and the logic seems simple enough. God did not bestow authority on individuals to baptize, but upon the church. If Baptists alone posses the only apostolic church, they alone have the authority to baptize.
In addition, Graves used his powerful position as the editor of the Tennessee Baptist to put forth these ideas. However, while radical to most Southern Baptists ministers, the majority of Baptist membership, lacking proper theological training, received the new ideology well. Graves was a dynamic speaker, and perhaps his strongest characteristic was his ability to connect with the masses. He painted Old Landmarkism as a battle of autonomy verses denominational hierarchy. In 1859, the issue came full-bore on the Convention floor. A motion, backed by Graves, to move the mission’s representation from denominational control to local church control failed ratification.
Graves, for his part, considered the centralization of the denomination as a way for eastern elitists to wrest control away from the local church. This idea found fresh soil in the Jacksonian Southwest. The “can do attitude” of the Southwesterners helped along the notion of an autonomous local congregation, separated from the control of the bureaucratic aristocrats. Meanwhile, the Easterners resented the lack of cooperation from the independent minded Southwest. This tension led to a near schism in the convention, and more than one church to divide. The classic church split scenario came in Grave’s own home church, First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. Graves and R.B.C. Howell, the pastor of First, Nashville, began what seemed a friendly and mutual advantageous relationship. Soon after arriving at First Baptist, Graves took over the editing duties of Howell’s paper, The Baptist. Quickly though, animosity overtook amicability. In an apparent attempt to save his pastorate, Howell brought a vote to the congregation, effectively excommunicating Graves from membership. Graves would start his own church in Nashville, and attempt his own coup at the Concord Baptist Association.
In a move that infuriate Howell, Graves set up a meeting through the Concord Association to discuss the Southern Baptist Sunday School Convention. Graves attempted to take over the organization, and Howell accused Graves of an attempt to gain control for personal financial gain. Obviously, the bitter feelings intensified.
In a letter to John A. Broadus, Howell asked that Broadus would, “critically and thoroughly examine ‘The Old Landmark Reset,’ and write me the results.” In a second letter, Howell again asked a reluctant Broadus to comply with his request. Saying that Broadus was well versed in the Landmark controversy, and that there were no “cultivated brothers” in the West that he could rely on, his only assistance in the struggle would come from Broadus.
This does give some validity to Grave’s claim of the layman versus the authoritarian bureaucrat. It seemed as though Howell espoused a feeling that only a “cultivated brother”, one of high class and education, could understand the finer nuances of doctrine and church polity. This thought carries into the New South and the Landmark issue to the present day.
Old Landmarkism has had an effect on the South Baptist Convention, and it still wields a powerful sword in the Twenty-First Century as well. The major concern of the movement has always been doctrinal purity. Landmarkist place the focus of the movement on local church autonomy and de-centralized control of the church. However, in the New South a strange turn of events has taken place. The Old Landmark movement has become its own worst enemy. Because of the aggressiveness of it adherents to keep Landmark churches Landmarkist, they have started exercising ecclesiastical control. Baptist associations in the old west, filled with Landmarkist pastors, drew and re-drew the boundaries for inclusion.
An example is seen in the Green River Associations Articles of Faith, circa 1800. An emphasis is placed upon the two ordinances of the Lord—baptism by dipping and the Lord’s Table for regularly baptized believers only. In the twenty-first century, the Graves County Baptist Association has placed emphasis on only the baptism, stating emphatically the Old Landmarkist belief that the only true baptism is one preformed, “at the hands of a Baptist Minister.” While the Graves County Association makes much ado about the proper mode of baptism, it says nothing of the practices of pulpit affiliation or open communion, which many of her churches practice. Furthermore, the constitution takes great pain to enforce the prohibition of alien immersion, even to the point of exclusion of churches that except alien immersion. Yet at the same time, it states that the association lacks the ecclesiastical control to enforce upon member churches any rules, as said churches are completely autonomous. This illustration shows that Old Landmark churches in the New South in truth only practice a watered-down version of Grave and Pendleton’s original landmarks. In some cases, Landmarkist pastors recognize this as the only normal mode of Baptist life.
To answer the questions of Cotton Grove and Landmarkism, history is the best guide. Have Baptists always been Landmarkers? Graves suggested as much, citing William Kiffin as a “consistent Landmarker.” However, Kiffin was an original signer of the first London Confession of Faith in 1644, which states in article forty-one that a proper administrator of baptism be, “no where tied to a particular Church.”
The Philadelphia Baptist Association, the oldest Baptist Association in America, took up the alien immersion question in the eighteenth century. A question, sent to this “mother” of all associations, asked if it were proper to receive into communion an individual immersed by a minister of the Church of England. The reply was positive.
As to succession of the Baptist church, history shows that the great “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, to be against Landmark inclinations. In his Sword and Trowel magazine, Spurgeon assailed the notion of a historical Baptist succession. Spurgeon, commenting on Thomas Armatige’s History of Baptists stated:
“No claim is set up for a continuous church of Baptists after the manner of Roman and Anglican communities; yet it is shown that the true and only baptism in water has always had someone to practice it.”
In summary, while Old Landmarkism has had a proper place in defining Southern Baptists, it is an ecclesiological fallacy to take a literal, historical position of succession and church authority as belonging to Baptists only. Contrary to the claims of leading Landmarkers, this ecclesiology has not always been a Baptist tradition. Great men of the faith, such as William Kiffin and C. H. Spurgeon have, through their writings and actions shown a great respect for ministers of other practices. With this in mind, it is best to keep with the Baptist ideal of autonomy and democracy. With such rancor, churches should decide for themselves what is right for their congregation.
 Ashcraft, Robert. Landmarkism Revisited, (Mabelvale: Ashcraft Publications, 2003), 105.
 Spencer, J.H. Old Landmarkism, A History of Kentucky Baptist, Complied 1886, available at http://www.geocities.com/baptist_documents/landmarkism.spencer.html, (accessed November 17, 2013).
 Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the Rhetoric of Demagogy: Primitivism and Democracy in Old Landmarkism Th.D. Diss. (Vanderbilt University School of Divinity, 1997), 23, 173.
 Ammerman. Baptist Battles: Social Change and Conflict Resolution in the Southern Baptist Convention, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 34.
 Ammerman. Baptist Battles, 36.
 Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the Rhetoric of Demagogy, 17.
 Ibid. 25
 Pendleton, J. M. An Old Landmark Reset. 2nd ed, (Fulton: National Baptist Publishing House, 1899), available at http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com/1.google.books.links.html (accessed November 17, 2013) 23.
 Pendleton, J. M. An Old Landmark Reset. 16.
 Wamble, Hugh. “Landmarkism: Doctrinaire Ecclesiology Among Baptists,” Church History 33 (1964): 429.
 Ross, Bob L. Old Landmarkism and the Baptists, (West Monroe: Pilgrim Publishing, 1979), 119.
 Pendleton, J. M. “Old-Landmarkism,” The Baptist Encyclopedia (online), http://www.geocities.com/baptist_documents/landmarkism.bapt.encyclo.html.
 Ross, Bob L. Old Landmarkism and the Baptists, 77.
 Ray, David B. Ray’s Baptist Succession Of 1912. 27th ed. (Parsons: Foley Railway Printing, 1912. Reprint, St. John: Harrison, 2001), 64-65.
 Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists. 3rd ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1973), 281-282.
 Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the Rhetoric of Demagogy: Primitivism and Democracy in Old Landmarkism, 67-68.
 Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the Rhetoric of Demagogy: Primitivism and Democracy in Old Landmarkism, 194.
 Bell, Marty G. James Robinson Graves and the Rhetoric of Demagogy. 194-196.
 Howell, R. B. C., Letter to John A. Broadus. October 11, 1857, Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville.
 Green River Baptist Association. Articles of Faith of the Green River Association Adopted at Her Constitution at the Sinking Creek Meeting House, Bowling Green, KY. 1800 Available at http://www.geocities.com/green.river.assoc.1800.html (accessed November 15, 2013)
 Graves County Baptist Association. Graves County Baptist Association Constitution, As Amended on October 24, 1998, Mayfield, KY, Graves County Baptist Association, 2004.
 Clark, Jennifer. “The Nature, Origin, and Influence of Landmarkism,” The Journal of Religious History 27 (2003): 122.
 Graves James R. Old Landmarkism: What Is It?. Edited by John R. Gilpin. 3rd ed. (Ashland: Calvary Baptist Church Book Shop, 1968), 176.
 Ross, Bob L. Old Landmarkism and the Baptists. 112.
 Ross, Bob L. Old Landmarkism and the Baptist, 120.
 Rice, John R. “Landmark Baptists, Hyper-Calvinists, Misuse Spurgeon,” Murfreesboro The Sword of the Lord, 16 March 1973, sec. A, p. 1.